Jordan, home to many Islamic and Christian holy sites, hopes a visit this month by Pope Francis will promote religious tourism and boost an industry hit hard by regional turmoil.
Tourism contributes 12 percent of gross domestic product in the desert kingdom and last year saw arrivals drop 10 percent to 5.4 million with revenues falling 6.25 percent to $3 billion (2.2 billion euros).
Officials pin the drop to the political and security impact from Arab Spring revolts in the region and the war in neighbouring Syria that has pushed 600,000 refugees to flee to Jordan.
Tourism Board chief Abdul Razzaq Arabiat said “we want to focus on religious tourism and make it a priority. It is least likely to be affected by political and economic issues.”
Pope Francis visits the Holy Land on May 24-26 with the first stop in Jordan, home to seven million people including about 200,000 Christians, more or less evenly split between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
He will only spend a few hours in the tiny kingdom but his visit “will be a major opportunity to promote Christian religious tourism,” Arabiat said.
Jordan features three sites of great potential interest to Christians, including Wadi al-Kharrar, or Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where some biblical historians believe Jesus was baptised and began his public ministry.
It is impossible to determine accurately where the baptism took place, and another site on the Israeli-controlled western bank of the Jordan River is also venerated.
The remains of several churches, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system — some dating to the Roman era — have been discovered in Wadi al-Kharrar.
– Oldest map –
Excavation in what had been a minefield separating Jordan and Israel only began in 1996, two years after the countries signed a peace treaty.
Early Christian pilgrims visited there on a route that took them from Jerusalem to nearby Jericho, across the river and then to the wind-swept peak of Mount Nebo.
Overlooking the Dead Sea and the hills of Jerusalem, this is where the Bible says God showed Moses the Promised Land after bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt.
Finally, there is the mainly Christian city of Madaba near Amman.
It houses the oldest known map of the Holy Land, painstakingly assembled from more than a million pieces of coloured stone on the floor of a Byzantine cathedral in the middle of the 6th century.
Pope Benedict XVI went to both Mount Nebo and Wadi al-Kharrar during his 2009 visit to the Holy Land, as did Pope John Paul II in 2000.
John Paul held a ceremony at the restored Byzantine church at Wadi al-Kharrar, which the Jordanians took as a confirmation that this was the baptismal site.
But in 2011, Israel opened to the public what officials there claim is the actual site in Qasr al-Yahud, a closed military area near Jericho.
– Desert castles –
Jordan is also hoping to attract tourists from other Muslim countries.
“We are preparing programmes to encourage tourists in countries such Indonesia and Malaysia to come to Jordan… after performing pilgrimage in Mecca to see Islamic sites here,” said Arabiat.
The tombs of many of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions are found in Jordan, one of the first territories to which Islam spread outside of the Arabian Peninsula.
And several important battles between Muslims and the Byzantine empire were fought there.
Also, Jordan’s 8th century desert castles give examples of early Islamic art and architecture, with their mosaics and frescoes inspired by Persian and Graeco-Roman traditions.
Economist Yusuf Mansur, head of the Amman-based Envision Consulting Group, said a “clear strategy and funds” were needed to market religious tourism and draw the large crowds of visitors.
“The volume of tourism at the baptism site is still is low and the main reason for that is government negligence,” said Mansur.
“The government needs to spend more money on efforts to improve religious sites, create more facilities there for tourists and market the sites internationally in a proper way.”
Religious tourism tends to draw middle and higher income visitors over 50 but Jordan is expensive for younger people, said Arabiat.
The papal visit could help turn the tide long after he is gone and boost the industry overall, he said.
Abdul Ilah Harahsheh, sales and marketing manager at Dallas Travel and Tourism company, agreed.
“We need to promote Jordan in a better way. Jordan has good hotels, and infrastructure as well as unique attractions and high level of stability and security.”